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The price is right

Is the $90 wine really better than the $5? Our brains say yes even if our pocketbooks say no.

January 19, 2008

Wine is like art. Most of us don't know much about it, but we know what we like. Except when we don't.

Witness the recent wine-tasting study led by a professor at Caltech. Subjects tended to prefer wines they thought were more expensive, even when, without their knowing it, they were sipping the same wines with different price tags.

Thus, our expectations flavor our experiences. If we anticipate great wine, we taste great wine. So much for the value of low expectations. Think of wine, then, as the opposite of holiday gatherings, when we tend to have ridiculously exalted notions of how wonderful it will be to get together with extended family, and then are forced to remember why we can't be in the same room with Uncle Archie for more than five minutes.

What's more telling about the Caltech study is how price colors expectation -- not just of wines but of everything from shirts to kitchen countertops. Leather car seats must seat us more comfortably because they're more expensive. A $19 T-shirt with a skull-laced surfwear logo has more cachet than a $5 T-shirt without, even if it gets holes in it just as easily. It's unclear whether having five blades on a safety razor gives a closer shave; shouldn't the first four blades do the job?

It makes sense, of course, to associate a higher price tag with a better product. After all, nicer things -- finer bedsheets, a more sturdily sewn pair of pants, a higher-definition TV -- historically cost more money. Consumers aren't snobs, or at least not completely.

But we are an understandably confused lot. The number of consumer goods multiplies; advertising inundates us with information, or pseudo-information; while in a specialized society, we move further from understanding the actual production of goods. We are not a society that sews, hammers or cooks from scratch; we know less about what to look for in a well-tailored blazer, a finely built chair or a crusty bread, and yet our options in these, as well as cars and hand-held wonder gadgets, are greater than ever. Price, at least, is a guide, though, as the Caltech study shows, a faulty one.

Or perhaps not. If spending more money assures us a better experience, maybe we're getting exactly what we pay for.

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